It’s Italy’s unsung region, yet its food has conquered the world—or at least the table. Think prosciutto di Parma, Parmesan, porcini, and half of all pastas known to man (just for starters). The source of its power? Po Valley dirt—fine, dense, almost chocolately, accumulated over millennia. Patrick Symmes feasts on the cities of the plain
The soil in the Arda Valley was, in the first days of September, already furrowed for a second crop. Everywhere we looked, right beside the roaring A1 or at some forgotten crossroads amid collapsing farmhouses, machines had plucked the harvest and turned the ground. Emilia-Romagna, the flat northern heartland of Italian farming, was combed into neat rows. Everywhere we paused, we stared in disbelief. Finally, outside the supermarket in Lugagnano Val d’Arda, I stepped in among the clods.
If you’ve ever gardened, you know the feeling I had. The dirt—millions of years of silt, washed down from the Alps and Apennines and deposited into this great bowl by the flooding of the Po River—lay meters deep. It is a rich brown humus, fine, dense, almost chocolaty. This stuff—mere dirt—is the building block of the wealth, strife, and food of the Po Valley, the great plain at the heart of Italian agriculture.
The story of Emilia-Romagna is the story of that soil, which grows the grass that feeds the cows that flavor the milk that makes the Parmesan cheese taste so good just down the road in Parma. This is the soil that sprouts the corn and wheat that fatten the pigs that become the ham that becomes prosciutto di Parma. This is the brown muck, fantastically productive, that grows the Trebbiano grapes, cooked down into the aged vinegar balsamico di Modena, in the town of that name, just another half hour along the A1. And beyond that, right down the curve of the immense plain—the largest flat place in Italy—all the products of this soil have been gathered into Bologna, one of Italy’s great, innovative trading cities, whose nimble-minded gourmets invented much of what passes for Italian food around the globe. Ravioli? Tagliatelle? Lasagna? Polenta? Tortellini? Half of all pasta shapes? All from Emilia-Romagna. If your mouth is not watering, stop reading here.
The soil next to the supermarket in Lugagnano wasn’t just brown and rich: It was practically alive, a tightly packed silt that the machines had turned up into chunks the size of dinner plates. I prodded one with my foot. “The size of dinner plates,” I said to my wife, awed.
“Bigger,” she corrected. Some of the pieces were the size of serving platters.
If you want to know how Emilia-Romagna has conquered the world, one table at a time, you need only look down.
We had rented a stone house in Castelletto, an obscure village high up in the Arda Valley. It proved to be a steep hamlet of stone houses, many empty, and about forty year-round residents, mostly old women. Ours was the only rental property in Castelletto, found online. It had good views, modern everything, and it rattled in the fierce mountain winds.
Our son, Max—a precious bundle, aged fourteen months—attempted his first steps in Castelletto’s empty playground. We took our first steps too: awkward greetings in Italian, and a quick scamper to the valley’s most famous site, the fortress town of Castell’Arquato. I struggled up the medieval keep with Max on my back, and we surveyed the views up the Arda—an ugly dam, and then the gentle Apennines, sharing a border with Tuscany. In the other direction was the great flat plain of the Po River.
Our goal was to go local in every sense: language, cooking, daily life. By staying in this small town for a week, we could wander far and wide through Emilia-Romagna but always come back to a single point—depth in Italy rather than breadth. We gathered fallen apples from our yard and fed the baby apple-mush that had traveled only a few yards in its life. I studied Italian. We walked, cooked, and made slow but encouraging progress in befriending the town’s elderly doyennes, who were enthralled by my son’s head of Irish hair. Il bimbo rosso, they called him: the red baby. Che bello. The village was dying, demographically, but EU money had paved even the smallest roads, flavored the local tomatoes with farming subsidies, and put seven sheep and an Audi in the same yard. The houses were in good repair—the children and grandchildren returned on weekends for the essential rituals of Italian family. Rural life was sustained on this high-fat diet of state support, provincial support, supranational subsidies, and an enthusiastic public willing to pay for good, local, traditional foods.
We followed our landlord’s tip farther up the Arda Valley to Cà Ciancia, an agriturismo, or farmhouse that takes in guests—an embodiment of the last of these trends. We parked against giant hoops of hay and walked past a small barn full of cows, pigs, and rabbits. In the kitchen—half a dozen local women roasting and knifing—these ingredients were cooked and served a few yards from where they were born. In both dining rooms huge collective meals were in progress, a dozen people at one table, eighteen at the next. The food—truffled anolini, pork loin with crisp potatoes—can only be described by my wife’s abrupt declaration, just halfway through, that “this is the greatest meal of my life.”
Food has to come from somewhere. Emilia-Romagna has beauty in it, but also more hog processors than ruins, more grain silos than medieval towers (and they have a lot of medieval towers). In the Po Valley, “what you see is what you smell,” Bill Buford, author of Heat, a tale of learning to cook Italian, explained to me. That can mean foodie bouquets of simmering sauce, rich cheese, and roasted chestnuts, but, Buford noted honestly, “even the fog smells like pig poo.”
Ask an Italian where the best food comes from, and he will mention his mother, and then his home region. But if pushed, many will admit, as one Roman told me, “Of course, there is Emilia-Romagna.” Why here? Good dirt, to be sure, but also rotten politics that created concentrated Renaissance wealth, and aristocratic rulers like the Estes, a clan that rivaled the Medici, sprinkled castles throughout Emilia-Romagna and practically invented the culture of banqueting and conspicuous consumption.
Then there is what the British explorer Richard Burton, writing in 1876, called sveltezza d’ingenio—the mental agility, the inventiveness—that is key to the region. Design and industry are fused in local brands like Ferrari, Ducati, and Lamborghini. Reggio Emilia, a quiet university city in the west, perpetually jousts with nearby Parma for the highest per capita income in Italy.
Yet Emilia-Romagna is a kind of lost region for foreigners, known, if at all, for its gemlike cities—Parma, Modena, Bologna, Ferrara, Ravenna—rather than its awkward hyphenated name, rooted in the ancient disputes of the Gauls and the Romans and pronounced with an almost silent g. The various cities have been rivals throughout history, pitted against each other like pawns in war and peace, swapped and traded among dukes, emperors, and popes. Naturally resistant to agglomeration, they have preserved and cultivated styles, habits, food specialties, and personalities that are independent of one another (the Parmese are reserved, the Modenese vivacious, and the Bolognese consider themselves the best lovers in Italy, or so the story goes).
As an identity, Emilia-Romagna exists chiefly on maps, which show it as a series of highways and train lines connecting outside places that are more important—Milan in the west to Florence in the south to Venice in the north. Forty million tourists a year come to this nation—two for every three Italians—but typically they just pass through Emilia-Romagna in transit.
So it is overlooked.
Fine. More for us.
What foreigners want from Italy changes over time, as we saw the next day. Having left Castelletto at the crack of noon, we toured Fontanellato, one of the many castles studded through the region by rival dukes, protecting their wealth and status with fairy-tale battlements and moats better suited to fishing than holding off a French army. A church wedding here fascinated us, the young men all in funereal black, the women erupting in purple and red organza, everything scented with Catholic incense. But after a few missed turns we arrived at nearby Colorno, whose vast Farnese palace has been divided into a psychiatric hospital in one wing and one of Italy’s most ambitious cooking schools in the other. Called Alma, it was opened in 2004 to train hundreds of international students a year as Italian-speaking evangelists of an Italian cuisine held to the highest standards.
One of the school’s star chefs, Paolo Amadori, briskly gainsaid the claims that Emilia-Romagna has the best food in Italy (“Let them talk,” he said of food writers. “We don’t make any distinctions”). Italian cuisine as a whole was not respected enough. Amadori cited the “Michelin gap,” the way restaurants in a single French city hold more Michelin stars than are awarded in all of Italy. “Bottom line, unfortunately, is that Italian cuisine was exported from Italy by non-professionals,” Amadori said. He meant the poor emigrants who flooded out of Italy, taking a cuisine of hunger built on the ingredients of poverty that was intended to satisfy need, not Michelin. Italian food suffered from what he called “the nonna problem.”
“They still think the momma should be in the restaurant,” he told me, in his chef’s whites and toque. “We have had only twenty years of professionalism fighting against a hundred years of the nonna, the grandmother. Why are we always talking about the nonna?”
A bold stand to attack the grandmothers. In Parma the next day, we saw the arguments for professionalism. The city is a model of affluent Northern Italian efficiency, and in the streets—like in all Emilia-Romagna cities, the layout is octagonal, following the shape of a castle designed to deflect cannonballs—we saw only Italians here, as in so much of the region.
Granted, there are greater things in Italy than in Parma alone. But for a first-time visitor like me, this was more than enough. Even for my wife, a jaded connoisseur of European beauty, the constant surprises—Renaissance frescoes, Byzantine mosaics, free Wi-Fi in the Parma town square—made Italy enthralling all over again. Later I would see Florence, the magic Italy, the famous Italy, with everything that Emilia-Romagna had to offer but done on steroids, at much greater scale and at infinitely higher cost, and with greater glory. Yet I would also see Florence amid roaring buses, be elbowed off the tiny sidewalks by beaming Russians, and have my pockets cleaned out by the exorbitant fees for museums and meals that came with free jostling. In Parma, by contrast, we had our own little Italy almost to ourselves. We ate a marvelous meal—practically alone—at La Greppia, on the edge of the city center. This was a restaurant advanced by Mario Batali, the New York-based chef, who had built his career on the pasta secrets he learned from three years in Emilia-Romagna kitchens.
La Greppia lived up to Batali’s hype and Amadori’s standards. Our lunch, made without a nonna in sight, featured Parma’s gifts to the world: prosciutto di Parma, porcini from the Apennines, fresh, soft tagliatelle like long strips of butter, and what a Baedeker Guide would call excellent cheese. The famous Parmigiano Reggiano appeared three ways, first whipped into a curious and liberating spuma di parmigiano, like a savory ice-cream appetizer, an oddity that no grandmother would attempt and only a machine could produce. Then there was Parmigiano shaved liberally onto ribbons of pasta, and finally it appeared in fat chunks, pried from half a wheel by a waiter taken with our grinning child. Max sat through the meal in his high chair, eating Parma from each tiny hand. This habit now costs me $16.99 a pound.
Parmese say you eat twice: first at the table, then by talking about it. The food traditions here are among the oldest and most continuous in Europe, giving people enough time to try and reject every adornment, leaving a plateau of quality, a rare combination of inventiveness and simplicity.
If there is one place in Europe you can tour without a car, it is Emilia-Romagna. Even the second-class Eurostar train is utterly clean, quiet, and stress-free, linking the major cities in a straight line (by October, it should be possible to travel from Milan to Florence, right through Emilia-Romagna, in less than a hundred minutes). Secondary cities, like Ferrara, were served by regional trains, slower and covered with graffiti, but nonetheless reliable and cheap, and filled with the real life of Italy: students, immigrants, even dogs, who can ride if they have their own ticket. This is how we came into Modena, on a twenty-five-minute local run. We plopped Max in his stroller and hoofed it into the center of town, gradually falling into silence. The teenagers leaving a local high school were dressed like Nautica models, their scooters the fanciest available; every building was in a nearly idealized state of repair; and in this, the hometown of Luciano Pavarotti, small shops sold sheet music and instruments to lines of enthusiastic customers.
The Giusti family has run a salumeria, a meat shop, since 1605, and had roots in vinegar production before then. Originally, the store sold both pork and duck. “The duck was for the Jews, the pork was for the Catholics,” the current owner, Matteo Morandi, told me as he showed me around. The store was still bustling in the Italian way—with a fantastic array of wines, high-end cheeses, and meats—but locked down under shorter hours than a Swiss bank. Starting almost seventy years ago, at fifteen, Matteo’s father, Adriano, had come to work here as a shop boy for the Giustis. He eventually bought the salumeria, and in 1989 opened Hosteria Giusti, a restaurant that, with just four tables, is among the most coveted in Emilia-Romagna. The place is accessible through a tiny passage in the back of the store that winds past the kitchen to tables in the old storage room where hams had hung to cure (the hooks are still driven deep into the overhead beams). We ate a symphony of al dente pasta and milk-fed veal.
The meal ended with a stunningly simple dish: gnocco fritto, or pillows of fried dough topped with a few intense drops of sixty-year-old balsamic vinegar. The balsamico was so thick that it had to be coaxed from the bottle. The question of what constitutes true balsamic vinegar is nearly impossible to answer. Many balsamics are produced around Modena with unregulated titles like “authentic,” “original,” and “genuine,” but these can be made from Trebbiano grapes in a few days, adulterated with caramel for color, sugar for sweetening, and flour for thickening. The addition of one spoonful of truly aged vinegar is enough to earn the label “aged.” These industrially made vinegars are serviceable—Italians routinely use them to lightly flavor a salad dressing—but the truest, artisanal balsamics are produced under the title tradizionale, from nothing but a reduction of grapes and time. With a dozen years and up to seven changes of oak or other wood barrels, they take on a nearly black coloring, a thick texture, and an intense, fruity flavor that mark the best balsamics. Those aged more than twelve years earn the title vecchio; stravecchio covers the rare brands stored for twenty-five years or more.
The great appeal of these complex, winelike vinegars—from vin aigre, or “bitter wine” in French—is the way they naturally accompany a diet heavy in fats, from olive oil to glistening slabs of Parma ham. The tradizionale are not mixed into dressings but are highlighted as a prime feature of the meal—dripped onto the finest cheeses or fried vegetables, used to stain vanilla ice cream or risotto on the plate, sprinkled on sweet strawberries with ground pepper to work strange alchemy.
It may seem odd that such a meal was accompanied by a wine that is mocked by snobs. This is Lambrusco, Emilia-Romagna’s curious sparkling red, served chilled in violation of every known rule of American connoisseurship. In America, Lambrusco is trailed by a disastrous association with the 1970s, when sales of sparkling red became anathema to a rising gourmet culture. But it is a light and refreshing drink that seems to cut through the richness of Italian food in the same way that balsamic vinegar is an antidote to the fat. A bottle can be a kind of guilty pleasure, all the sweeter for the disapproval of the erudite.
After the meal, I asked Matteo what I asked everyone: Why here? Why is Emilia-Romagna the center of the food universe?
“It’s because of the pasta,” he said. “Every region in Italy is proud of its cuisine. But we have the tradition of pasta. It’s continuous, unbroken.”
Then I asked him if Italian food has a “nonna problem,” if the cuisine is too closely based on images of grandmothers stirring the sauce.
“But that’s our whole idea!” he burst out. Speaking loudly and slowly, to compensate for my bad Italian, he said that of course Italian food should be based on what grandmothers were cooking. “The cuisine is of the casa,” he told me. “We make our mothers’ food.” His own mother—the nonna to his three children—was in the kitchen right now, he pointed out. I popped over a few feet from where we sat in the alley; there was nonna, frying the little pillows of dough I had topped with stravecchio.
Score one for the grandmothers.
Like a good detective story, Ferrara benefits from what is missing: The dog didn’t bark and the tourists didn’t come. Of those forty million annual visitors to Italy, I literally did not see another during five days in Ferrara. Boasting an idealized layout, and claiming to be Europe’s first planned city, Ferrara lies on the northeasternmost plain of Emilia-Romagna, alternately bathed in summer heat and winter fog, and ignored by all but the most discerning travelers—chiefly Italians seeking some authentic piece of their own nation that has not been squeezed through a tourism machine.
Ferrara benefits from the quiet: Although it is common in Emilia-Romagna for cities to ban traffic in their central zones, in Ferrara the bent alleys of the entire core are pedestrian-friendly. The clattering of wheels over cobblestones and the polite tinkle of bicycle bells may be the loudest sounds you encounter here. For us, wielding a small baby through the region, Ferrara offered a secure and confident respite, where our son could practice his walking freely, at no risk greater than a bombardment of kisses from neighborhood nonnas. (When my wife took him walking outside the hotel at 6:30 in the morning, I could track their progress by the faint cries of “Bambino bellissimo!” and “Che bello!”)
Since Roman times, a road—the Via Emilia—has run straight through Parma, Modena, and Bologna, to Rimini, but Ferrara lies off this access. Ferrara’s relative isolation led to stagnation and noble rot; in 1786, Goethe called the city “lovely great depopulated” Ferrara.
Colomba, the owner of a sleepy and delicious trattoria, told me, “1800, 1900—those were abandoned times here. Only in the last five years has tourism picked up.” A Lebanese chef, raised in Nigeria and trained in Italy, he had the kind of mixed heritage often concealed behind Italy’s classic facade. He was cooking pastas with ragù alla bolognese and featherweight gnocchi in sage butter. Ferrara was once a center of Jewish life in Italy, and we sampled heritage dishes here like smoked eggplant and goose with grapefruit. The lack of industry, modernity, and population pressure has preserved the urban core more perfectly than in nearly any other large city in Italy, leaving a centro storico of gently curved pedestrian streets.
Ferrara is a humid city in the plains: hot, frequented by mosquitoes, where the women wave Chinese fans to stay cool. I made a rare nocturnal foray, slipping out on a sleeping wife and baby to walk the streets at 11 p.m. Lovely depopulated Ferrara was suddenly coursing with life, the plazas packed with hordes of beer-drinking young people. While eating pizza I made a naive, if profound, discovery about Italians. Everyone was hugging and kissing, slapping backs, the men holding hands, people in rapt conversations still checking cell phones and looking over their shoulder to miss no opportunity with another person. Personality and human relations lie at the core of Italian identity. I watched in amazement as an Italian gallant, clearly on a first date, abandoned his voluptuous companion to race into the street, hug an acquaintance, log some face time with him, engage in passionate push-me, pull-you argument with the pedestrian, and work hard at persuading his friend of something—and not return to his lady friend for a full fifteen minutes. Personality is an art form to Italians, the purpose of life.
Here is how you make fresh pasta dough: Mix flour and eggs together. That’s it. There are some useful techniques and tricks, and you can call this dough sfoglia if you like, with a good Italian accent. But that is all that lies at the very heart of the secret of Italy’s greatest regional cuisine. In Emilia-Romagna in general and in Bologna in particular, the genius of the table is simply fresh pasta. Once you get something right, the only advance comes from simplifying it, and Bologna is the place that gets things right. The city is known by a series of nicknames that shed some light on its history: Bologna the Fat, for its wealth, especially at the table; and Bologna the Red, originally for the dominant color scheme of its buildings and later for its politics. The city remains a Communist party stronghold, even as it is known as a city with the finest clothes, the best food, and the most beautiful homes in Italy. Medieval arches and porticoes line twenty-five miles of city blocks, and although there are some conspicuous tourist attractions here, like a pair of brick towers from the Middle Ages, the city is more “real” than Venice or Florence, oriented toward regular people and home to 100,000 students and some of the best food markets in the country.
I had a chance to put my high theory of cuisine to the test here—two chances, actually. Determined to have at my fingertips the secrets of Emilia-Romagna, I signed up for a couple of cooking classes. One, conducted in the kitchen of a Bologna bed-and-breakfast called Casa Ilaria, was patronized by several young English couples who had, thanks to the bargains available for European air travel, flown to Bologna for the weekend. This class took a few hours and was taught by Ilaria herself, a relaxed and informal teacher who worked us through the mixing of sfoglia dough and the technical challenge of rolling out and cutting the result into wide tagliatelle, while assembling a traditional ragù alla bolognese and creating a tiramisu for dessert. Ilaria was in the nonna school: Like any Italian home cook, she used soffritto—the base of minced onion, celery, and carrots—that came from the supermarket freezer section. Her tips were all practical, like flavoring the sauce with “the wine that’s open, red or white,” and “pasta feels the weather, so keep some flour back until you see the mix.” I left feeling, how easy!
The other class was an altogether more serious affair, a weeklong culinary tour of Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany led by noted foodie Mary Beth Clark, which I joined for a single day. We began at dawn beside Bologna’s famous statue of Neptune, where Mary Beth pointed to some mysterious white stones embedded in a wall—signs of the original marketplace that thrived here in medieval times, when illiterate servants had to measure out their orders for bolts of cloth and roofing tiles against these standardized forms. We traipsed across the plaza for some early-morning shopping among the cheese and egg vendors, the makers of fresh pastas and cured meats. Then we crossed a few blocks to enter one of the city’s most reserved and secretive institutions, the Club Bologna, in a sixteenth-century palazzo. (Trained among Bologna chefs, Mary Beth is the rare female member of this private entity.)
Forget the nonnas. We were greeted by a butler, served coffee by uniformed staff, and issued aprons and recipe collections for what would be a whirlwind effort to cook our way through a dozen classic dishes of the region. Assembling in the club’s kitchen, guided by Mary Beth and the club’s own chefs, we started with the same dishes I had done the night before: fresh pasta dough and a ragù alla bolognese. This is the sauce that conquered the world, at least in theory. Genuine ragù alla bolognese is a thick, almost dry sauce made with pork and beef that are coarsely chopped, a little tomato, and no garlic or herbs (salt is also little used, since it is present in so many local ingredients, like Parmesan cheese and prosciutto). True Bolognese sauce is used in baked lasagna, or as dressing on broad pastas that can support the meat, like tagliatelle. A Bolognese would sooner go out for Chinese than eat spaghetti alla bolognese, since the thin noodles leave a pile of meat behind in the bowl. In true meat-obsessed Bologna fashion, we also worked up a roast tenderloin and classic polpetini meatballs made with veal.
Mary Beth’s theory was impeccable, her process professional enough to please even the doctrinaire chefs at Alma. She minced her own ,soffritto rather than using the stuff from the freezer section; she urged us to “harmonize” the ragù alla bolognese by using only the same vintage of wine we would be serving with the meal. A true purist, she even declined to put Parmesan cheese on the dish, which Bolognese regard as an unnecessary improvement. And she confirmed my base instinct about Po Valley soil by noting to the class that “if you understand geography, you understand what forms the people, the way they look, and pardon me, the way they smell.”
Among the guests was an amiable gray-haired Italian-born man traveling with his Australian wife. He often served as a kind of translator during the cooking, joking and grinning, but I was struck at one point when a shadow passed over his face. He had been talking to the elderly lady rolling out the pasta dough, and I caught a phrase in their rapid exchange that puzzled me: figli della lupa. With my dictionary Italian, I misunderstood this to mean “children of the wolf.” Clearly it had nothing to do with cooking. I finally forced it out of him. These two gray-hairs, who lived continents apart for almost their whole lives, had found an instant point of common grief in their origins. What he had told the woman was, “We are both Children of the She-Wolf,” a reference to Mussolini’s Fascist version of the Boy Scouts, the Figli della Lupa. Here was a jolting connection to the old Italy of poverty and dread, recalled at leisure in a luxurious social club, in the relaxed terminus of long lives.
Emilia-Romagna offers plenty of reminders of this history, too. Although Mussolini was actually born here (in Forlì), the region was an anti-Fascist stronghold, and Bologna was the only city in Italy to liberate itself before Allied troops arrived. Northern Italy paid a steep price for this stubborn independence: In Bologna, Ravenna, and Modena, I had seen plaques listing the partisans who died at the hands of the Nazis, and in Ferrara there are plaques remembering the Jews deported to the death camps. Allied bombing and desperate, last-stand fighting by the Germans flattened some towns in the region. This history, combined with the incredible cruelty of the ruling medieval and Renaissance aristocrats, seemed like an incentive to live well while you could. We are all children of the wolf.
The Adriatic coast has retreated from Ravenna. We blew down the A1 from Ferrara and reached the onetime capital of the Byzantine Empire by mid-morning. This drive took us through the easternmost parts of Emilia-Romagna, flat and ugly in a way that only a foodie could love. (“Everything smells of pig shit,” the author Bill Buford had said of Romagna, sighing with pleasure. “It’s pig shit when you wake up, pig shit when you go to sleep, pig shit all day.”) Anyone addicted to the Italian table knows what that stink produces, so buck up and breathe deep.
Romagna has more to offer than pig poo, fortunately. Our day was spent touring some of the world’s greatest mosaic work, found in Byzantine churches and tombs dating back to the sixth century. I’d seen Roman and Byzantine mosaics in Syria, Turkey, and Lebanon. But the art of stone tiling reached its zenith here, in glittering works of gold and blue that put even Hagia Sophia in Istanbul to shame. In Ravenna, we devoured the famous portraiture in stone of the Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo and the tiny but stunning mausoleum of Galla Placidia. Then we finished the day with a sprint into the Romagna marshlands, where the very oldest mosaics lie inside the Abbey of Pomposa. There, in cool shade, I was distracted by the frescoes overhead illustrating Christ’s life until I heard a suspicious squeak. I looked down but too late.
Bambino alert. Max was speed-crawling under a velvet rope, making his way onto the oldest mosaic in Italy. It is a section of flooring from A.D. 535, a closed archaeological site. Old stones were suddenly causing me a heart attack. Max four-pointed his way into the center, sat down, and, looking around in satisfaction, said, “Hup-hup-hup.” He was drooling on treasures from the first millennium.
In America you might be arrested for this. In Emilia-Romagna they have a different attitude. A gray-haired docent dismissed all of my concerns using three languages (if you count sign language).
“Kinder okay,” he said, and waved a hand.